The fondest memories of my childhood center on the time I spent with my father watching Star Trek. At the time, I simply enjoyed science fiction. However, as an adult I have often revisited Star Trek (on multiple occasions) and I realized that I had incorporated subconsciously many elements of the show into my own political reasoning.
Not to give too much away about my age, my passion with Star Trek started largely with the Voyager installments. As a result, I ended up seeing Kate Mulgrew as Captain Janeway. And that’s what she was: the captain. I never saw the relevance that she was a woman. A few years ago, I saw her speak at the Montreal Comic-Con (yes, I am that kind of Trekkie) and she mentioned how crucial she thought her role to be for the advancement of women. By that time, I had already started to consider Star Trek as one of the most libertarian-friendly shows ever to have existed. While its economics were strange, its emphasis on tolerance, non-intervention and equality of rights make it hard to argue that it is not favorable to broadly-defined liberal mindset. However, I had not realized how much so until I heard Mulgrew speak about her vision of the role. After all, I had somehow forgotten that Mulgrew was a woman and how novel her role was.
One person who understands how important was this point is Shannon Mizzi who wrote a piece for Wilson Quarterly which I ended up reading while I was still a PhD student. Her core point was that in Star Trek, women were simply professionals. They were rarely seen doing other things than their work. While she argues that this meant that Star Trek played an underappreciated role in the history of women’s advancement, I am willing to go a step further. That step is to assert that the cause of the cultural advancement of women has been better served by Star Trek than by governments. (Please note that I am only considering cultural advancement)
The pre-1900 economic and social history of women would be sufficient in itself to make this point of mine. After all, women were given a lesser legal status by governments. This is both a necessary and sufficient element to assert that, overall, governments have been noxious to women’s advancement over many centuries. One century of legal emancipation would still leave Star Trek as a net positive force. But that would be a lazy argument on my part and I should simply focus on the present day. In fact, thanks to a wealth of data on wage gaps, gender norms and measures of legal institutions, I can more easily back up the claim.
My friend Rosemarie Fike of Texas Christian University is the first person that comes to mind in that regard. Her own doctoral dissertation, Economic Freedom and the Lives of Women, introduced me to a wide literature on the role of economic freedom in the advancement of women. To be sure, Rosemarie was not the first to try to measure the role of economic freedom (which we should understand as how small and non-interventionist a government is). There had already been some research showing that higher levels of economic freedom were associated with smaller hourly wage gaps between genders and how liberalizing reforms were associated with wage convergence between genders. However, some economists have been arguing that there are other “soft sides” to economic freedom – like in the promotion of cultural equality and norms that promote certain types of attitudes. This is where Rosemarie’s work is most crucial. In a section of her dissertation, she essentially builds up on the work of (my favorite Nobel laureate) Gary Becker regarding preferences and discrimination. Basically, the idea is that free markets will penalize people who willingly discriminate. After all, if an employer refuses to hire redheads for some strange reason, I can compete by hiring the shunned redheads at a lower wage rate and out-compete him. In order to stay in business, the ginger-hating fool has to change his behavior and hire redheads which will push wages up. Its hard to be a racist or misogynist when it costs you a lot of money.
However, if you prevent this mechanism from operating (by intervening in markets), you are making it easier to be bigoted-chauvinistic-male-pigs. As a result, laws that prevent market operations (like the Jim Crow laws did for blacks) enshrine discriminatory practices. Individuals growing up in such environment may accept this as normal and acceptable behavior and strange beliefs about gender equality may cement themselves in the popular imagination. When markets are allowed to operate, beliefs will morph to reflect the actions taken by individuals (see Jennifer Roback’s great story of tramways in the US South as an example of how strong markets can be in changing behavior and see her article on how racism is basically rent-seeking). As a result, Rosemarie’s point is that societies with high levels of economic freedom will be associated with beliefs favorable to gender equality.
But the mirror of that argument is that government policies, even if their spirits have no relation to gender issues, may protect illiberal beliefs. Case in point, women are more responsive to tax rates than men – much more. In short, if you reduce taxes, women will adjust their labor supply more importantly at the extensive and intensive margin than men will. This little, commonly accepted, fact in labor economics is pregnant with implications. Basically, it means that women will work less in high tax environments and will acquire less experience than men will. Since it is also known that differences in the unmeasured effects of experience weigh heavily in explaining the remaining portion of the gender pay gap, this means that high tax rates contribute indirectly to maintaining the small gender pay gap that remains. Now, imagine what would be the beliefs of employers towards women if they did not believe that women are more likely to work fewer hours or drop out of the workforce for some time? Would you honestly believe that they would be the same? When Claudia Goldin argues that changes in labor market structures could help close the gap, can you honestly say that the uneven effect of high tax rates on the labor supply decisions of the different genders are not having an effect in delaying experimentation with new structures? This only one example meant to show that governments may, even when it is not their intent, delay changes that would be favorable to gender equality. There are mountains of other examples going the larger effects of the minimum wage on female employment to the effects of occupational licencing falling heavily on professions where women are predominant.
With such a viewpoint in mind, it is hard to say how much governments helped the cultural advancement of women (on net) over the 20th and 21st centuries . However, Star Trek clearly had a positive net effect on that cultural advancement. That is why I am willing to say it here: Star Trek did more for the cultural advancement of women than governments did.